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The Geopolitics of Travel

Is it still okay to go here?

In a perfect world, we would make all our decisions about where to travel based solely on our interest in a destination: its natural beauty, architecture, culture. Unfortunately, in our currently less-than-perfect world, geopolitics often gets in the way. This leaves us in the difficult position of having to decide whether our desire to travel is outweighed by the risks of international conflicts and policies.

Recent developments in Southeast Asia highlight this dilemma. Following Myanmar’s transition to democracy, tourism there boomed. But the recent devastating events involving the Rohingya have called into question whether tourists should continue spending their time and money there. I was also disheartened to read that the government of Cambodia has recently been displaying signs of authoritarianism, including expelling a nonprofit group and stifling dissent. I found Cambodia to be a wonderful place to visit; is it okay for us to continue to go there, if the government is behaving badly? Conflicts like this – ranging from disagreements over policy to outright war – exist on every continent and shape the way we experience (or don’t experience) the world.

Before you wade into the murky waters of moral dilemmas, you must first consider your safety. A travel journalist once said that he will go to any country where he knows who is in control. This is a good test (it would, for example, wisely rule out countries like Libya) but not a complete one. To this I would add that the following countries should be off the table:

  • any active war zones,

  • any area in the midst of a disaster recovery or immediate public health or safety crisis, and

  • any country that has developed a habit of arresting Americans for no reason.

Although safety can sometimes be subjective, and we all have different risk tolerances, it’s generally not hard to determine whether a country falls into one of these “no-go” categories. The U.S. State Department’s travel website ( is also a good resource for safety warnings and advice.

The more difficult choices arise when a country is safe but its government has implemented policies you don’t agree with. I don’t believe that a country should be automatically struck from your travel list just because you disagree with some of its government’s actions. For one thing, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single country in the world where you agree with everything its government does. More importantly, the government is not the same as the people. One of the most important benefits of travel is the outreach to people of different cultures and backgrounds, and the mutual understanding that can develop as a result of those interactions. It’s easy to brand an entire country the “enemy” if they’re all foreign to you; it gets harder when you’ve met some of the people and realized how much alike you are. This kind of “soft” diplomacy is valuable in our fraught world, and it would be a shame to lose it because of a few bad acts by the people in charge.

Of course, if there are policy issues that are particularly important to you, or if a policy could have an impact on your personal safety (such as LGBT rights), then you should act accordingly. Beyond that, the litmus test I suggest is a simple question: Will traveling to this country benefit its people?

This question is at the heart of sustainable travel. We should always strive to travel in a way that benefits the destination, by making sure that our tourist dollars go back into the local community in productive ways and that our presence isn’t damaging to their environment or culture. Applying this test to a country with a problematic government can yield enlightening results: For example, in North Korea, the entire tourist experience is run and controlled by the authorities; traveling there only benefits the government. On the other hand, in Cambodia, you can travel in ways that benefit the people at a local level, and support their development and environmental programs.

These decisions are highly personal and subjective. As responsible travelers, the best we can do is be informed, consider our options carefully, and make choices that serve not just our own self-interest, but also the best interests of the people we’ll impact with our travels.

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